Do all brands have a compelling story to tell?

Over time, consumers have found ways to ignore branding and to keep them interested, ads need to be relevant 

For many in today’s marketing world, it is fashionable to believe that advertising is anything-but-advertising. Some of the recurring points in this theme are: advertising as we know it is dead, advertising today is all about ‘conversations’ with consumers and that consumer is in control (I am not clear of what exactly). Another popular theme is that advertising is all about ‘storytelling’ now. All these are lapped up by trade media, get written about and discussed in industry events.

In my view, the fundamentals of marketing and communication have remained unchanged since the birth of advertising as a profession. Bill Bernbach said: ‘It is fashionable to talk about changing man. A communicator must be concerned with unchanging man, with his obsessive drive to survive, to be admired, to succeed, to love, to take care of his own’. Consumers have always seen advertising as an interruption. It is not a new phenomenon discovered by markets of today. In the 1950s, ad man Howard Gossage said ‘people don’t read ads, people read what interests them. Sometimes it is an ad’. Over the years, advertisers, in their quest for consumer attention, have placed ads in more intrusive fashion. The explosion of media options — print, TV, outdoor, radio, web, social media, apps and more have made it more challenging for commercial messages to be noticed. In India, we have whinged about TV stations cutting away to an ad just as the last ball is bowled in an over of a cricket telecast, for years. The front page ad in a newspaper has been disliked by many — not to mention the various pull outs and odd shapes covering the main news in a daily.

On the web, advertisers not just practice but favour intrusive ads; the digital agencies are challenged to come up with newer ways of getting the commercial message upfront and in-your-face of the consumer. Page take-overs, annoying pop-ups, auto-playing video ads, slider banners are examples of such ‘innovation’. What the digital world has done is simply give the average consumer a better chance of blocking such intrusive messages through adblockers. The popularity of ad-free streaming services like Netflix, Prime and Hotstar also indicate that consumers prefer a non-intrusive entertainment experience.

Does all this mean that people do not like any advertising? My personal view is that people have found a way to ‘manage’ advertising over the years: they simply ignore them. People understand that advertising is a necessity for media brands — there is no way to do away with it completely in mass media. That’s the reason why most consumer reaction to advertising is just passive — advertising becomes mostly white noise. Surveys tell us that too — most ads are simply ignored… they go un-noticed. In that environment very few ads stand out, get noticed and appreciated. Such ads have high repeat value, are enjoyed & shared (when possible — like in social media) or talked about (marketers call it ‘story making’ — the phenomenon of consumers advocating a brand ‘experience’).

In the 90s when a commercial aired on media was liked I am sure people talked about it among friends and media wrote about such occasionally. I recall many ads from the non-digital era which would have been viral in today’s context: Dhara’s ‘jalebi’, Hero Honda’s ‘Fill it, Shut it, Forget it’, Amul’s ‘Doodh, doodh…, VIP’s Kal bhi, aaj bhi ad, ‘Mile sur mera tumhara, Bajaj’s ‘Yeh zameen yeh aasman…’ and many more. These were ads genuinely liked by viewers and talked about; if they had social media back then I am sure these would have been shared. So the point simply is that people liking a minuscule set of ads (while ignoring a majority) and talking about them is not a new phenomenon.

As far as consumers and brand having a conversation with each other, that is just bullshit. In the digital world, consumers are in a position to respond to brand communication with immediate feedback. They are also able to seek customer support or complain through social media channels. Other means by which brands ‘interact’ with customers are through contests and topical communication. These can hardly be called ‘conversations’.

In the modern marketing context, it is made out as if ‘story telling’ is a new necessity borne out of consumers who now have the power to skip ads. But telling a good story has always been one of the many routes adopted by ad agencies to sell a brand. Admittedly not all ads have a good story. And even among good ads, ‘story telling’ is not a mandatory ‘route’ to take. Story telling in an ad is when it has a plot, characters and a role for the advertised brand. A good example would be the ad for Google Search from 2013. Couple of other examples which come to mind: The Power of Wind by Epuron and Justino for Spanish lottery.

But do all brands have a compelling story to tell? I think not. It is very difficult to create a story around mundane everyday brands (e.g a toilet paper or a dish washer brand). Even if it is a story well told, if the role of the brand is tenuous, to me, it is still not a good ‘story’. More then compelling, what the ad needs to deliver is relevance. 

George Tannenbaum’s comment on storytelling is so apt:

But our business, in its aggressive dumbing-down of most everything, has taken the term story-telling and applied it to nearly everything. There are a few brands, in fact, who can really tell stories. I am lucky enough to work on one of them. Nike is another one. There aren’t many more. In fact, the likelihood of anyone finding a story about new, extra-strength Saran Wrap compelling just ain’t going to happen.

Advertising is meant to sell. It has to create a preference for the advertised brand over competition. In this context, a story based approach to advertising works only if the story is compelling, relevant to the brand or category, well told and most importantly, the brand finds a central role. Very often in such advertising we find that the ad has a tenuous or no role to play. At least with other ‘techniques’ used in advertising — a product demo, problem-solution and so on, the advertised product is central to the narrative style.

Corporate brands though, have a better chance of telling a compelling story about themselves. Why so? In corporate brand advertising, the objective is still to create preference for one brand over another. But either in the B2C or B2B categories, brands get several shots at it across content and over time. Moreover, they have several aspects of their brand — history, values & ethics, people expertise, processes and more to anchor their stories on. Every piece of communication has to add to the overall objective of creating an aura about the corporate without having to directly sell every time. Of course not every organisation has a compelling talking point. Just as parity products are common in consumer products, parity or near-parity offerings are common in corporate brands too, especially in B2B services.

The writer blogs about advertising, branding and marketing strategy at and tweets @bhatnaturally